Whether it’s as fantastical as the alien realm of “Avatar,” or as naturalistic as the ripped-from-the-headlines stories of “Law & Order: SVU,” part of movie, TV, and theater magic is the willing suspension of disbelief. Audiences must be able to believe in the faux reality of the world being presented to them in fictional works. Suspension of disbelief requires an unspoken agreement between creators, performers, and audiences. The creator crafts a world with consistent logic, the actors perform with verisimilitude, and the audience accepts the narrative taking place within that world.
This unspoken contract ensures that audiences remain immersed in film, TV, and theatrical productions.
“Don't Worry Darling” Credit: Merrick Morton
Tragedy and catharsis: Aristotle wrote in “Poetics” (335 BC) that theatrical tragedy can create a sense of “terror and pity” in viewers. Experiencing these emotions creates a positive sense of catharsis, or purification through purging. In order for audiences to experience these emotions, the characters depicted in a tragedy must be good, appropriate, realistic, and consistent.
Poetic faith: Over a millennium later, poet-philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in “Biographia Literaria” (1817) that when writers imbue “human interest and a semblance of truth” into their texts, readers will take on “poetic faith” and accept the internal logic depicted in even the most supernatural narrative.
Enjoying entertainment: Today, the phrase is used more to describe the duty of viewers and readers hoping to be entertained by fictional works. Rather than focusing on the physics-defying leaps of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the statistical impossibilities of your average “Law & Order: SVU” episode, suspending disbelief means harnessing the ability to enjoy the storyworld of these productions.
Of course, audiences can only become immersed in movie magic when they don’t feel compelled to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. “The audience is never required to bring suspension of disbelief with them to a movie,” writes Roger Ebert. “It is the filmmakers’ job to create it—to drag it kicking and screaming from the clenched fist of the viewer’s reason. It is an involuntary response (or lack of response), created when questioning certain details is made impossible by the distraction of the mind.” The onus of suspended disbelief lies with those involved in the creation of a fictional work; only then can the audience take up their part of the bargain.
“Back to the Future Part III” Courtesy Universal Pictures
Writers, filmmakers, video editors, and others involved in crafting compelling, believable works of fiction should remain cognizant of the suspension-of-disbelief concept to keep audiences engaged with their work. To do so, they should:
Avoid plot holes: Whether it’s the deus ex machina arrival of the Great Eagle saviors in “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” or the extra DeLorean in “Back to the Future Part III,” leaps in logic and incidents that defy a story’s internal reality disrupt the viewing experience. Avoid plot holes by establishing rules for your storyworld and sticking to them.
Make it relatable: Unrelatable characters and emotions can take audiences out of the zone just as much as the most egregious of plot holes. While the fantasy world of “Game of Thrones” is far beyond the scope of our own, the recognizable wants, needs, and arcs across the ensemble of characters keep viewers invested—dragons or not. Strive to craft emotions and situations that are true to your characters and their environment.
Keep it consistent: Narrative continuity is key to keep ’em believing. If you set up a rule at the beginning of your story, stick to it. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be realistic. If the first act of your script properly establishes that everyone in your world can fly, that’s fine; the audience might lose their suspension of disbelief, however, if a notable character dies from falling out a window.
“Avatar: The Way of Water” Courtesy 20th Century Studios
Actors also benefit from considering suspension of disbelief for more engaging performances. Realistic acting and mindful engagement with the surrounding environment can help create a sense of credulity.
Act, don’t distract: Aim for nuanced acting that still conveys complex emotions and character interiority. Answering the W questions about your character—Who? What? Where? When? Why?—can help you gain a sense of their motivations and what drives their behavior. Respond to your fellow actors and remember that the show must go on; even though a flubbed line or clumsy move might take you out of the moment, you can stop it from doing the same to the audience by keeping things moving before the minor distraction becomes a full-fledged disruption.
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Be mindful: Consider your space and place and engage with it mindfully. This will keep you immersed in your performance and prevent scenes from slipping through your fingers. Think about your body and its place in the environment around it. Onstage, that might mean following stage directions and using props with intention. On set, it could mean purposely acting as though the greenscreen behind you is a real depiction of an otherworldly environment and not just a blank wall.
“Stranger Things” Courtesy of Netflix
All fiction requires the suspension of disbelief for audience members to become lost in its unreal world. Here are some examples from movies, TV, and plays.
Suspension of disbelief in film include:
- “Get Out”: a surgery can transplant people’s brains into other people’s bodies
- “Tangled”: an evil witch can use the power of a young woman’s freakishly long hair to appear eternally youthful
- “La La Land”: a pianist and an actress sing and dance in harmony despite not having any real musical accompaniment (the same goes for any musical in which the music is non-diegetic)
TV examples include:
- “The Office”: people working in an office allow a documentary crew to follow and film them—including at home—for multiple years
- “Stranger Things”: a mysterious underground otherworld exists and exerts its supernatural pull on the real world
- “Grey’s Anatomy”: all doctors can moonlight as models
Examples of suspended disbelief in theater include:
- “Wicked”: a green-skinned witch exists
- “Richard III”: people naturally speak in iambic pentameter
- “Waiting for Godot”: two friends wait for a third long enough that a tree grows several leaves